Review: Beth Orton – Kidsticks

On her previous two albums, Beth Orton gave the distinct impression that she had fully abandoned the chill-out room tinges of her early work and reinvented herself, very convincingly no less, as a straight-up, no-nonsense proper folk musician.

It came as a surprise, then, when it was announced earlier this year that Orton’s new, sixth album would see a bold return to electronic music. Why the sudden change? Is Orton having a minor midlife crisis? Is her recent relocation to California responsible for this latest transformation? Has she grown just as sick as everybody else of so-called “folk music” thanks to those dungaree-wearing sing-along prannies Mumford & Sons, whose sonic crimes were so great that they even agreed to lay down the banjos themselves?

I wouldn’t call Kidsticks a u-turn though, even if one of its lyrics does confess to “falling backwards”. A genuine “return to her roots” would have seen Orton brush the cobwebs off the face of William Orbit so they could resort to an unnecessarily nostalgic “Trailer Park 2” exercise. (What’s Orbit been up to of late, by the way? Wikipedia says he’s written and produced a Chris Brown song while much of his solo work has concentrated on fusing dance music with classical compositions, neither of which is remotely forgivable.) Wisely, Orton hasn’t done that and instead she’s co-produced this album with Andrew Hung from deafening post-dance noise duo Fuck Buttons. The result proves less a reversal than simply Phase 3 in an exceptional career that’s been dedicated to delicate, intelligent songwriting, no matter whether it’s played nakedly on an acoustic guitar or surrounded by mounds of colourful wires and assorted bleeping apparatus.

When Orton moved to California, she began experimenting at home with electronic loops, which have formed the basis of this album. Although Hung was involved in its fruition, alongside members of Twin Shadow, Grizzly Bear and A Winged Victory For The Sullen, there’s only one track here that you could accuse of sounding merely like a remix of a more organic Orton composition. Elsewhere, the melding of Orton’s voice with the experimental electronic instrumentation is seamlessly cohesive. Despite its title, opener ‘Snow’ is not very wintery at all. Rather, it’s bouncily reminiscent of Animal Collective’s electro-tinted freak-folk numbers, complete with appropriate lyrics about “getting high”. Another poppy moment is ‘1973’, a gentle electroclash lullaby with a retro synth refrain that seems to nod to the sublime (if divisive) keyboard fingerings of Leonard Cohen’s 80s masterpiece I’m Your Man. ‘Flesh And Blood’ is similarly upbeat and optimistic. A love-struck ditty which closes the record (apart from a short supplementary outro), you can imagine this poignant composition playing during the end credits of an independently-produced romantic comedy of remarkably high quality as you reflect deeply on its main characters’ emotional journeys.

However, Kidsticks also has its fair share of darker and more abstract pieces. There is all sorts of weird stuff going on in ‘Petals’, for example, including vocals possessed of a spiritually choral air, a guitar that floats hazily in the background like it’s been stolen from Chris Isaak, physically deconstructed and then pinned to a cloud, and a skronking climax that must be the most abrasive passage Orton’s ever committed to tape.

Together, ‘Dawnstar’ and ‘Falling’ form the album’s centrepiece and, although neither surpasses the 5-minute mark, each one feels like you could curl up within in it and nestle inside there for at least a month or so. The first has a dubstep/trip-hop comedown feel with Orton channelling the fragile melancholy of Tracey Thorn or Elizabeth Fraser. The second is equally absorbing, almost touching on low-key, Depeche Mode-ian synth pop, complete with a gothily morbid line about how her “phonebook is filling up with dead friends”.

Comfort Of Strangers (2006) and Sugaring Season (2012) were strong, enjoyable and mature records but they were not exactly jump-out- of-your- sofa-and- punch-the- air exciting artistic achievements. Kidsticks, on the other hand, is strange, bold and (softly) confrontational. It’s a relatively short and succinct album too and hearing it reminded me of that brief and beautiful weekend I had listening Blackstar on repeat and believing that David Bowie was suddenly, inexplicably back to his world-beating, creatively rekindled best and that nothing could stop him now. Then on the Monday it turned out that Bowie was dying all along and he’d been informing us all with his cryptic clues.

Kidsticks feels rather like Orton’s Blackstar. Only, you know, without the whole tragic aftermath part, one would hope.

Pre-order Kidsticks via Bandcamp. The album is out May 27th.

Written by JR Moores